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Self-service technologies may be losing favor with both customers and brands. Let’s dig deeper into some studies and reports on self-service to see what they really reveal about the modern user experience and the technologies that power them.

You see self-service technologies all over the place in the real world—grocery store checkouts, rental car agencies, movie theaters, tableside at your favorite restaurant and more. If you were to survey a broad range of consumers, many would tell you they prefer the speed and convenience of self-service options.

So why am I even writing this post?

Because a new study from Drexel University claims that customers tend to be more loyal and satisfied with brands that offer traditional checkout vs. self-checkout. While this study and others like it look specifically at brick-and-mortar checkouts, I think there are important lessons that can help us improve the digital user experience overall.

What Can We Learn from Self-Checkout Backlash?

Self-service technologies were introduced to brick-and-mortar businesses as a way to cut down on lines and make shopping faster and more convenient. It was also a way for those businesses to reduce costs.

There are definitely parallels between self-checkout and the self-service technologies we use in websites and apps. So as we take a look at what’s happening with the self-checkout backlash, let’s see how we can use these lessons to improve the way we design our digital experiences and make better technological choices for our users.

Lesson #1: Segment Your Users

One of the things the Drexel study found is that traditional checkout isn’t consistently preferred over self-checkout. There were certain circumstances in which there was little difference in user loyalty between the two options when, say, the shopping cart contained fewer than 10 items:

“The number of items purchased during a shopping trip … moderates the effect of checkout type on customer loyalty.”

This idea that there’s backlash against self-checkout is a bit of an overstatement. While this data suggests that customers are more loyal to brands when they go through the traditional checkout experience, that’s not always the case.

When designing digital experiences and choosing technologies to use within them, avoid generalizing your users. For instance, age is a big differentiator when it comes to self-service technologies.

A 2022 Gartner study found a big disparity between self-service preferences based on age.

For instance, 38% of Gen Z and Millennials would give up on a customer service issue if they couldn’t use self-service. Only 11% of Boomers said the same.

A lack of self-service options would also keep about half of Gen Z and Millennial users from shopping with a brand again:

  • 55% would use the service less.
  • 52% wouldn’t buy from them again.
  • 44% would say negative things about the brand.

But, again, this is just the youngest segment of users. If you look at the average preferences of all users, only 26% would stop using a brand if self-service technologies weren’t available, according to Shep Hyken.

This is why segmentation is crucial. It will prevent you from making sweeping decisions that only a segment of your user base prefers and thereby alienating the rest. When it comes to technology as divisive as self-service, your decision-making process and strategy must be nuanced.

In addition to segmenting users based on demographics and preferences, you should also segment them based on circumstances.

For instance, a recent Knowledge at Wharton article made this interesting insight about the customer experience:

“Gallino said retailers must figure out how to tread the line between convenience and annoyance. They also need to know their customer. A department store shopper expects some level of personal service when making a purchase, while someone running into the supermarket for eggs probably doesn’t care.”

Careful research and segmentation is needed before adopting any technology. Your findings will help you decide if the technology is worth adopting in the first place. And, if so, what alternatives you should offer for those that might not be as tech-savvy or just generally uninterested in using the solution you’ve provided.

Lesson #2: User Dissatisfaction Is Inevitable When You Design Without Empathy

When choosing technologies and designing user experiences, you have to factor in the company’s goals. But those goals should never supersede the user experience. An article in The Atlantic noted this side effect of the over-automation of retail:

“Retail executives, looking for any available corner to cut in order to juice short-term profitability, took self-checkout’s proliferation as a license to trim store staffing to the bone. Many stores are now messier, their shelves go unstocked for longer, and customers have a harder time finding the products they’re looking for or employees to answer their questions.”

Self-service technologies aren’t the sole reason for the degradation of the in-store user experience, but they are a contributing factor.

Now think about how these sorts of company-first decisions can impact digital products and experiences.

For example, I was recently looking for help with an email marketing platform my client uses. There was no sign of life on the website or in the app—no chatbot, no email and no phone number. So I turned my attention to the self-service documentation.

My only option was to do a search and hope to find an answer to my issue on the results page. Eventually a “Did you find what you were looking for?” prompt appeared. It was only when I clicked “No” that I was given the option to chat with someone.

Users don’t just feel frustration when issues arise with self-service tech either. According to the Drexel report, the perception of the experience can cause frustration too:

“News articles and anecdotal evidence also indicate that during self-checkout, having to bag items themselves, confusion with using the self-checkout machines, and concerns about replacing cashiers’ jobs with machines severely frustrate customers, in turn negatively affecting their shopping experiences and relationship with the store.”

That’s why it’s critical to develop user journeys and test them with real users when designing digital experiences. The self-service option might be what consumers generally want. However, if it’s not integrated into your product with their perceptions, preferences and goals in mind, it could backfire.

Lesson #3: Monitor Your Technologies Closely

A Raydiant survey asked respondents: “If a self-service checkout option is available, what is the most common reason why you should not use it?”

These were the answers:

  • 25.1% used self-service in the past and it didn’t work.
  • 21.9% said that past self-checkout ended up being too slow.
  • 19.9% preferred to be checked out by a human.

The last thing you want is for buggy or difficult-to-use technology to be the reason why you lose customers.

This is why close monitoring, data review, feedback gathering and testing is needed after rolling out a new product or feature. Just because you’ve implemented something new doesn’t mean you need to remain committed to it.

In fact, some brands are pulling away from self-service tech or modifying their systems after such analysis.

Target, for instance, recently began testing a new self-checkout policy after discovering that some customers disliked the self-checkout technology. Only customers with fewer than 10 items are allowed to use self-checkout now.

As a 2023 CNN article explains:

“A Target spokesperson said the test was designed to shorten wait times and ‘better understand’ shoppers’ preferences.”

They’ve since reported a 6% increase in customers using traditional checkout lanes.

Booths supermarkets have made a more drastic change when it comes to self-service. Managing director Nigel Murray told BBC Radio Lancashire:

“Our customers have told us this over time, that the self-scan machines that we’ve got in our stores they can be slow, they can be unreliable, they’re obviously impersonal. We stock quite a lot of loose items… and as soon as you go to a self-scan with those you’ve got to get a visual verification on them, and some customers don’t know one different apple versus another for example. There’s all sorts of fussing about with that and then the minute you put any alcohol in your basket somebody’s got to come and check that you’re of the right age.”

As a result, the company has removed self-service tech from most of its stores.

No technology is flawless. However, if you’re implementing a solution with the promise of making the experience faster, smarter, more convenient, etc., then it needs to deliver the majority of the time.

If it doesn’t, then don’t let the Sunk Cost Fallacy keep you from removing or renovating your existing solution. While you may have put a ton of money, time and effort into building out a self-service solution (or other new feature you thought would be a hit), the losses probably aren’t worth it.

Lesson #4: Use Tech Solutions That Are Compatible with Your Brand

Nigel Murray from Booths supermarkets had more to add about why the brand ditched self-checkout:

“We are a business that prides ourselves on the high standards and high levels of warm, personal care. We like to talk to people and we’re really proud that we’re moving largely to a place where our customers are served by people, by human beings, so rather than artificial intelligence, we’re going for actual intelligence.”

It’s easy to lose sight of what makes your brand special when new, trendy technology hits the scene. Sure, consumers have been clamoring for self-service technologies, AIs and other forms of automation for years.

But what if those technologies clash with your brand’s identity and values?

It doesn’t hurt to try out new technology. In the case of Booths, it was a very costly test as self-checkouts aren’t cheap nor is the training for the employees that oversee it. However, this experiment gave them an opportunity to learn more about their customers that they might not have otherwise discovered.

This will be something you have to consider on a case-by-case basis when building out digital experiences and incorporating new technologies into them.

  • Do you really need this new technology or feature?
  • Does it fit with your brand’s identity?
  • If so, what is the value the customer will derive from it?
  • And what is the value your company will derive from it?
  • Where is the proof?
  • If you don’t have proof, are you able to invest time and money into gathering it?

A lot of these issues that companies have experienced with self-checkout in store and self-service online could’ve been avoided by answering these questions. But, like I said, it can be hard to think clearly when there’s an emerging technology that everyone around you is adopting and that customers seem to be excited about.


Customers are definitely frustrated with the poor experiences they have with self-service technologies in the real world and online. And companies are equally frustrated at how error-prone and costly these technologies have proven to be.

But it’s not fair to say that there is a self-checkout backlash taking place right now. These technologies are here to stay, especially as Gen Z’s spending power grows.

I think the biggest lesson to take away from this whole thing is that brands need to be more mindful of how technology impacts the user experience. Even if your users want and demand certain types of self-service and automation, take your time in rolling out new solutions and features. Ensuring they have a positive experience matters more than being the first one to launch the new shiny solution.

About the Author

Suzanne Scacca

A former project manager and web design agency manager, Suzanne Scacca now writes about the changing landscape of design, development and software.

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